D&D General Rules, Rules, Rules: Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of D&D

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In the Dedicated Mechanics thread, I discussed some of the ways that D&D is sui generis- unique- and therefore not a good comparator for most other TTRPGs. Given that I have written extensively on this topic before, I wasn't sure I wanted to do another dive into it again ... but you know ... Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the topic up with my words unheard.

If you are one of the people who do not enjoy reading, and instead simply want to get to arguing without wading through these vast fields of verbiage in the belief you might get tripped up by the landmines of nuance, I will put forth the basic idea here and save you the time of scrolling so that you angrily denounce something or other:

1. D&D, by virtue of possessing a different position through history and market power, should be viewed differently than other TTRPGs. It is not simply a ruleset, but the interplay of diffterent factors, including but not limited to its history (past editions), rules, the community (incl. homebrew), third party product, and norms, as well as its position vis-a-vis the remainder of the market.

2. Bonus speculation- to the extent that WoTC is attempting to "tie down" D&D (rules, not rulings), this will eventually lead to the loss of those things that make D&D different than other TTRPGs.

1. Understanding the History of D&D Through the Year 1981.
You're drowning in the past, Mike. But I've got your life vest right here: it's called the 80's, and it's gonna be around forever!

I really wanted to use 1983 (a merman I should be), but I'm going with 1981. Specificity is the soul of narrative, and I think that the use of the year 1981 provides the best example for understanding how the history of D&D isn't like that of other games, and why that matters today. I've written about this before, but I'd like to concentrate on a specific year that (in likelihood) many people aren't familiar with in order to illustrate the essential weirdness of D&D in the TTRPG (hereafter, just "RPG") market.

As I've previously covered elsewhere, the great debates in RPGs were already in full force. People arguing for strict RAW, and people arguing against it. People arguing for more rules for social occasions, and people arguing that specified rules stultified roleplay. People arguing for more rules, and people arguing for fewer rules (and more rulings)- heck, people arguing for the importance of the rules, and people arguing that the actual rules weren't important. People who wanted more realism, and people who wanted more abstraction. People who came up with familiar typologies for different games and different gamers, and people who thought those typologies were facile and self-serving. People who wanted to play a game, and people who wanted to participate in a story. Heck- by 1981 we already had old timers (grognards was still used to refer to wargamers) from the 1970s complaining about the munchkins who were only interested in power due to the influx of younger gamers who weren't playing the game right. In short- same as it ever was ... time is a flat circle. If EnWorld existed back then, the majority of the threads would probably look pretty similar.

But looking more closely at D&D in 1981, we see why it was so profoundly weird, and how that weirdness set up the gestalt for D&D in the future. In 1981, you had:

OD&D. Yes, OD&D was not only still around, in the form of Holmes Basic it was incredibly well-known. While the core set and supplements for OD&D was complete by 1976, the 1977 Holmes edition had been a bestseller ever since the Egbert incident in 1979. And yes, they kept printing and publishing Holmes through 1982.

AD&D. By 1981, you had the core three (the DMG was published in 1979) as well as Deities and Demigods and the deeply weird Fiend Folio.

B/X. 1981 also marked the publication year for Moldvay/Cook (Basic/Expert).

Thing is - while today we understand that these are different rules, back then it was pretty much "mix-n-match." So to start with you had three different "rules" for a game circulating at the same time. To give you an idea of how strange this might be- B2 (Keep on the Borderlands) was written by Gygax to be used with OD&D, so if you look carefully you'll notice that it complies with those rules. But B2 came included with Moldvay Basic. And many people used it in their AD&D campaigns. So you could have a table running an OD&D module that they bought with Moldvay Basic with AD&D rules. And no one would bat an eye. In short- there was already an idea of remix culture in terms of rules that was alive in D&D.

And that's because D&D, for many reasons, contained multitudes. On the one hand, the game was so "loose" that if you talk to people who actually played then, you will quickly learn that no two tables played exactly alike or with exactly the same set of rules. On the other hand, D&D was so omnipresent and "standardized" that they ran competitions during conventions (the "C" series of modules was just the release of the competitive tournament modules, and had the included rules as to how to "score" PCs). Because D&D was such a major force in the market, you not only had the TSR magazine (Dragon) releasing constant new material (including "NPC-only" classes) for use in games, but a deluge of third party product for the market leader. Moreover, the rules themselves (dating back to the "incomplete" OD&D approach) were never considered mandatory, but permissive. The most basic concepts in the game- things like ToTM or miniatures - were left undetermined.

In addition, 1981 is also a useful snapshot of the market for D&D. As reported in (I believe Game Wizards) the majority of the D&D market was pre-college by 1981. In fact, you already had D&D products sold at Scholastic middle school "book fairs" in addition to D&D becoming increasingly common for middle school and high school kids (pace the depiction in Stranger Things and E.T.). D&D was a game designed by (and for) middle-aged wargamers that was also, for lack of a better term, a kids' game. This dual focus, which became more of an issue with the Satanic Panic, was inherent in the game from 1979 on- Dragon 36 (April 1980) recounts the experience of one DM at a convention being flustered when running a dungeon for a group with mixes ages that had prostitutes (of both genders) that were offering their wares to the party, because the dungeon had been designed for the older players that the DM had expected and younger players had shown up.

The reason I bring up 1981 (arguably, the 1979-1983 period was the original "golden age" of D&D, not to be repeated until 5e) is because we can see that the basic issues that animated D&D and the conversations around it were already in place then.

2. The History That Carries Through
An amazing sight, seeing someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket.

And while D&D has had good times and bad times since 1981, and editions, and arguments, and SPLITTISTS! (ahem, Pathfinder), the core concept has remained. D&D is constantly in a conversation with its past and with its community. Other game systems do things very well- for example, if you have a focused system like Blades in the Dark (BiTD), you have a specified default setting (the city of Doskvol). You have a specified type of adventure (crews performing heists). The mechanics are suited to that setting and that type of adventure; to the extent you want to muck around with it greatly, you create a new game (using the Forged in the Dark base system). Heck, I do something similar when I create one-page bespoke rules-lite games for running one-shots! I make a game tailored for what I want to do.

That's not D&D. D&D has always been, for both better and worse, a system that isn't defined by its ruleset. This leads to frustration in two different ways- one that tends to annoy me personally (and I am easily annoyed, as I am a person who has strong opinions that are lightly held), and one that I see re-occur regularly here.

The first is a common mistake when people are looking at history- its the mistake of assuming that history is like the present. We had a recent thread that went through this debate again; the mistake that is often made when people look back at older rule sets for D&D is assuming that they can extrapolate how the game was played simply by looking at the RAW. The fetishization of RAW, however, is not something that was always so prevalent, especially in D&D. While there were always rules lawyers (the original term, barracks lawyers, was well-known in the '70s), the actual importance of RAW qua RAW is an artifact of the early 2000s - both within D&D (there is a reason that we had 3e and the coinage of Oberoni Fallacy at that time) and in opposition to D&D and other prominent RPGs from the 90s ("System Matters" and related ideas).

When looking at the rules for D&D in a historical sense, you always have to be aware not just of the rules of particular editions, but of norms as well- which could be wildly varying (the lack of internet in the old days meant that different localities would often have wildly varying playing styles and content). Anything prior to 1989 (and the simplification and codification of the OD&D / 1e rules into 2e, and the general marginalization of the Basic line) is especially fraught. Just as saying, today, that "5e tables all do X" would be a strange statement to make, it would likely be even stranger to say about pre-'89 D&D simply because there was such a diversity of both rulesets, 3PP, and the malleability of the rules themselves.

Second, D&D today is not defined by its ruleset alone. The combination of the history and the primacy of D&D within the market means that the ruleset will necessarily be incomplete, as the rules do not define the game. To explain within the parameters of 5e-
The game must be both welcoming to newcomers as well as crunchy enough for people that have been playing for years (or decades)- in other words, it has both serve as the entry point for kids as well as the game for long-term players.
It must support both ToTM and grid-based approaches to the game.
It must be able to have a regular "basic" game, as well as be able to support innumerable expansions from both WoTC and 3PP.
It must have elements that are familiar to people who have played before ... from 0e to 4e.
It must support a diversity a playing styles- everything from set-piece combats to diplomatic intrigue to sea journeys.

In short, D&D has to be a little of everything, to everyone ... often at the expense of doing some things particularly well. Which is why a lot of the heated debates about D&D are often just people talking past each other- many times, it's simply a question of perspectives. If someone is bending 5e to play it more like 1e, and another person is playing it more like a 3e, and a third person is trying to play it as close to RAW 5e as possible, the three people will often have difficulty determining how to "correctly" play the game - and will end up arguing over the results.

This lack of uniformity is something that most (not all) RPGs don't have. Many modern RPGs are designed to be played "by the book," and it's relatively trivial to discuss best practices when it comes to those games. That doesn't mean that there aren't vibrant communities that discuss the games ... far from it ... but the nature of the conversations tend to be very different. It is rare to see the types of infighting that you do for D&D, because D&D lacks that definition within the rules- for better and worse.

3. Brief Thoughts on the Future
I'm not interested in heaven unless my anger gets to go there too.

One of the things that caught my eye with the recent flurry of announcements on 1D&D was this (quoted from the survey results thread)-
Thief subclass's cunning action does not interact with use an object; this is intentional. Removed because the original version is a 'Mother may I?" mechanic - something that only works if the DM cooperates with you. In general mechanics which require DM permission are unsatisfying. The use an object action might go away, but that decision will be a made via the playtest process.

So I have a very deep dislike of this term, partly born out of the history of its use. Originally traced back to Mike Mearls (go figure!) the avoidance of so-called MMI mechanics was a driving force behind late-3.5e and 4e design principles. Without going too far into the weeds of this part of the history, one thing definitely stands out about this concept- given that WoTC has announced that they are going heavily into having a more on-line presence (via DDB etc.), and given Hasbro's stated desire to extract more money from D&D, this seems awfully familiar.

The reasonable concern I would have, then, is that this is part of a desire for increased uniformity of play. Which might sound like a great thing to many people- I know that there are a lot of people out there that, pace Oberoni, are looking forward to our new rules standardization overlords. That said, it would seem that the periods of greatest success for D&D have generally not occurred during standardization, but far from it- when there was ferment and division, and the game itself was merely a scaffolding erected upon which many styles could climb.

But perhaps I am wrong! The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I'll have lunch. Anyway, thought I'd throw this out there.
Re: Mother May I, I don't think 1D&D is showing any sign of consistency there. As a specific example, Divine Intervention still exists, which is a pure MMI ability. It even got two weird tweaks - going to 2d6 days instead of 7 (?!) and not working automatically at 20th. Also I've seen no evidence of either of 5E's main designers caring about MMI much before.

I think there is evidence of a push to make things less DM-dependent in broader, which is smart, because a lot of decent design in 5E was effectively accidentally gated behind the DM reading the DMG very carefully and deciding that a lot of "The DM may..." stuff was worth doing, when in fact it probably should have been the default in most cases, and in many cases the DCs etc. should have been presented to the PCs.

That's something 3E did as well though, so not particularly wild. Does it benefit VTT-centric play? No doubt. Is it good design? I think it's better design than burying that stuff in waffle in the DMG.

Re: standardization, so far the standardization 1D&D is doing largely falls under the "Nobody* asked for this" and "Different, not better" categories, which is pretty weird, to be honest. Standardizing subclasses to L3 and the same progression was pretty random. A lot of people here and on reddit and other sites had been in favour of standardizing them to L1 (esp. as many subclasses are weird-as-hell if they suddenly manifest at L3), and just making the major progression be at L3, but WotC went the opposite way, and no-one was particularly suggesting they needed identical progression (given how differently the classes progress). Nor does this really benefit VTT-centric play or the like.

Likewise the spell lists, and standardizing everyone to spell preparation, was bizarre. People have idly suggested the former but it certainly wasn't a popular idea and the benefits are marginal at best. It doesn't even really make it easier for people to tell if a spell released as, say, a microtransaction, would necessarily be for them, because you have oddities like Bards only having certain schools of Arcane. Standardizing spell prep to Wizard-style preparation was even more bizarre and basically no-one had ever suggested it - though the opposite had been suggested a bit (standardizing to spells known). It benefits releasing spells as microtransactions slightly, because you'll know you can change to that spell next night, but it's still a weird decision which increases player book-keeping. There are minor benefits - but they're about equal to the issues it creates.

All seems a bit weird and all over the road to me so far. Doesn't present any kind of strong vision.

* = To be clear, there is literally nothing that someone hasn't asked for/suggested, but I'm talking rare/unusual suggestions.


The fixation on micro transactions on a platform that hasn't even seen the light of day yet is utterly bizarre.

I, for one, absolutely love the L3 standardization and think it's a fantastic idea. Levels 1 and 2 only last 2 sessions anyway, so, basically, they're either entirely ignored, or make for great "background building" levels. What 0 level used to be in earlier editions.

I have zero problem with this change and see it as a much better approach than slotting some classes into their subclasses out of the gate while forcing other classes to wait a couple of sessions before getting their subclasses. It was a bizarre design decision at the outset, but, entirely understandable because in 2014, you'd NEVER be able to get standardized class formats into the game because it was too similar to 4e.

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